Why you should care about 3rd party produce certification
When you go to the grocery store, it is nearly impossible to find unmarked food. Products ranging from fruits, vegetables, meats, cereals, and everything in between seem to come with some sort of label or branding.
Some labels brand fruit, while others certify frehsness
Some of these labels convey relatively obvious messages: if you buy a bag that is labeled “Gala Apples,” chances are pretty high you’re buying gala apples, and there’s probably another label on the back that conveys nutritional information. But increasingly, products are coming with labels that are harder to decipher and oftentimes, they seem to promise consumers that what they are buying is better than the competitor sitting next to it.
Take again, the example gala apples. The bag may come with a little panda, sun, or leaf on it that indicate that the apples are organic, sourced fairly, are held to the highest safety standards, and so on. What naturally proceeds in the mind of the consumer is that this bag of galas is better than the adjacent one that lacks those symbols because it has undergone rigorous testing or certification.
How much truth is there to that, though? This brings us to the issue of third party certification and certifying bodies.
Although the task of ensuring the quality and safety of food products historically rested in the hands of government agencies (in this US, this would be the Food and Drug Administration), this task has been increasingly delegated to third party certifiers. The intent in this lies in the idea that because these bodies are independent from players in the rest of the production chain, they are objective, are independent, and have no stake in the results of the tests they carry out. The spread of third party certification has since then been rapid, spanning not only across countries, but also across the globe.
The impact of this on retailers and their suppliers has been enormous; take for example the Global Partnership for Good Agricultural Practice (GLOBALGAP). Formally known as the Euro-Retailer Working Group, GLOBALGAP was created by a group of European supermarket chains that wanted to maintain the trust of their customers and ensure the safety of their products.
GLOBALG.A.P. was created as an institution consumers could trust in the produce industry. Source: Globalgap.org
Eventually, the group decided to create a set of standards that suppliers could get certified under using a third party certifier. By achieving the standards and being certified by auditing bodies, supplier would maintain access to their European customer, and in theory, would help ensure quality standards across the board. As of 2008, more than 80,000 suppliers in over 80 countries have become GLOBALGAP certifiers.
The rise of certification in the US drew from a different set of needs and restrictions. Political changes and budget changes within the country increasingly limited the capacity of individual states to regulate food and agriculture. Furthermore, with the increase in international trade (particularly with NAFTA parties), it became more difficult to regulate what was being sold because different countries held their products to different standards. The rapid pace of product differentiation also made government regulation difficult because laws and standards simply could not keep up with how quickly products were changing.
Keeping all these factors in mind, it makes sense why the industry and government agencies turned to outside bodies. That, however, does not mean that using third party certification has resulted in the optimal, or most straight forward, outcomes possible.
A recent study that looked at the true independence and objectiveness of third party certification concluded that, “ the best a [certification body] can do is to assist suppliers by mapping out the system that they should follow. It is then up to the suppliers as to whether they actually follow the system or not. Thus, from the perspective of [certification bodies] it is ultimately the responsibility of producers and/or processors to mitigate hazards or defects. If this is indeed the case, the outcome is that having [third party certification] does not always mean that a given set of standards are actually being followed. This raises questions as to whether TPC is in fact making food safer and of better quality, or ensuring that actors in alternative agrifood networks are in fact using the specified practices”
Confusion also may exist on the end of the consumer. Different consumers care about different things, different groups of brands uphold different standards, and different bodies look at different metrics.
Often small farms using organic methods are unable to pay the high fees of 3rd party certification
Some standards may only look at whether or not the product is organic, but may not study human rights violations in the labor chain. Other standards may be concerned over the technology being used in the production process, but may not be as concerned with the size of the operation. There is also the unfortunate reality that exists that using third party certification may act as a barrier to entry for small competitors.
If a small farm is using organic methods, but cannot pay the fees required by a certification body to come certify their farm as organic, they may have trouble labeling their products as “organic.” In the grocery store, consumers seeking out organic produce may not buy what that small farm is selling because their products aren’t properly or accurately labeled, which stymies the growth of local or small businesses. In addition, this may also a price premium to what consumers are buying when they may not actually be buying the best product available.
Because certification and auditing bodies rely so heavily on the idea that they are objective forces, and therefore, better, we as consumers might be placing entirely too much trust in a somewhat flawed system.
According to the previous study, the rapid spread of standards and labeling has encouraged certifying bodies to enter the market when their employees or auditors may not fully understand what they are certifying, and oftentimes, certifying bodies seem to “put forth counter-claims with respect to their ‘external’ position. Sometimes they emphasize their ‘objective eyes’ while other times they argue they are not responsible should problems occur.”
Third party certification absolutely has a role to play in the current and future agriculture and produce market. With the high interconnectedness and complication the world currently garners, it seems efficient and forward thinking to delegate tasks to an outside party. That said consumers have a larger responsibility in this arena than we probably realize.
It is our job to ensure that when we buy products, we understand what different labels mean, what certain standards are actually looking at, and know that no one standard is the be-all-end-all to excellence. Rather, many bodies and standards truly do their best to encompass safety and fairness, but may fall short or not be as independent as we think for a variety of reasons.
At some point, it may even be our job to call upon groups like GLOBALGAP to tighten or even rethink their standards entirely, depending on the needs of society and suppliers. At this time, however, the best we can hope for is that people consider the true value and meaning of the panda, sun, or leaf on their bag of gala apples and if it really means anything at all.
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